Jonathan Yanez Lives for the "What If?"

Eight years after he quit his job and cashed in his 401(k), Jonathan Yanez is one of the most prolific Latinx sci-fi writers today.

Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly. 

Edwin de la Cruz: Hi, I'm Edwin, Audible editor, and today I have the pleasure to sit down with Jonathan Yanez, one of the most prolific Latinx authors devoted to writing contemporary sci-fi/fantasy today. Welcome, Jonathan. So good to chat with you.

Jonathan Yanez: For sure, thank you so much for having me on, and definitely appreciate the opportunity.

EDLC: Our pleasure. Before we dive into your sci-fi work, there's something that I want to tackle first. While doing research for our chat, I discovered on your website a mini-motivational video that goes along with a self dev title that you've written, Get It Done: A Gentle Kick in the Pants for Writers. It starts with you quitting your job, cashing in your 401(k), and deciding to go for broke as a full-time independent author. Was that scary for you?

JY: Oh my goodness, Edwin. I feel like even now looking back on my situation then, I'm more scared for me now looking back than I was at the time, when I was actually going through it, because I think I had just hit rock bottom at the time. And I saw this as like the only way out. And then now, looking back at that guy, I'm like, "I can't believe you quit your job. You cashed in your 401k, so there's no safety net. And that you just decided to put your back against the wall and make this author career work."

EDLC: And why did you feel the need to write this motivational title?

JY: I'm a big fan of nonfiction, I listen to a lot of nonfiction. And I knew that as my writing career had taken off, I felt like I could reach back and maybe give a word of encouragement to those people who wanted to be a full-time author, but they're afraid, or they're not sure if they would be able to make it. I wanted to kind of do my part and give back to that community.

EDLC: I can totally see that. Well, that's a good segue to diving into your work. Your most recent series, Forsaken Mercenary, has been described by Audible listeners as Jason Bourne on steroids, nonstop action and brilliant and captivating. Can you describe what your writing process is for a series such as this one? I'm curious as to how you manage to balance the story with intense action sequences.

JY: Oh, for sure. I'm a big fan of action comedy, whether it's like Lethal Weapon, or Rush Hour, those types. They have the balance where it's definitely character-driven, so we get to know, feel, and understand these characters. They could be us, for everything that they're struggling with and going through. And then also you have that comedy aspect balancing out the action. 

When I listen to an audiobook... I'm looking to be able to experience a performance.

I try to do an action scene every three chapters. It could even be a dream sequence, one of the characters fell asleep and in their sequence there's some sort of action, or they're running from something, they're running from their past. And then I do more character buildup, add in some humor, and then make sure I have another action scene in the next three or so chapters.

EDLC: That sounds like a fun formula. Let's talk about your influences in sci-fi. Who are the writers that have influenced your work?

JY: Oh man, there's so many of them. I think Frank Herbert's one of them. C.S. Lewis, which a lot of people wouldn't think as a sci-fi author. He wrote a series called Out of the Silent Planet. Definitely C.S. Lewis, and some of the older writers. Edgar Rice Burroughs is another big one who I really enjoy. Because times change, not all sci-fi stands the test of time well. But with Edgar Rice Burroughs, going back and listening to his book, it still had me on the edge of my seat, and I was still cheering for the hero.

EDLC: I think for a lot of us, I know for me, I read Tarzan as a kid and it's such a gateway for other works. Like Robert E. Howard, who did the Conan books. So now you're a Latino, killing it in the sci-fi space. What has that been like for you?

JY: It's just getting real. We're going to get deep, are you ready?

EDLC: I'm ready.

JY: Okay, here we go. We're going to get deep. I grew up in Southern California, and my mom and dad instilled values into me that we're people. Whether you're white, black, orange, yellow, we judge each other on our actions, not what race you come from, or what color your skin is, none of that. So, going into my career as an author, I didn't really think of myself as a Latino author. 

But over the years—I've been doing this for eight years now—it's become so obviously apparent that being a full-time Latino author, specifically in the sci-fi & fantasy realm, consistently putting out work…  I'm not going to say that there's nobody else doing that, because I'm sure there are. But I would say at least there's very few of us who are doing this full time and consistently putting out work.

That has been an eye-opener for me. I was having a conversation with one of my friends—his name's Jason Anspach, he writes a series called Galaxy's Edge—and I was telling him what I was feeling, and asking, should I kind of plant my flag? I said, "You know what, I am different and I am writing sci-fi." And he said, "Yeah, 100 percent." He told me, "If you don't do it, who's going to do it?" And that hit me deep, too. I'm like, “He's right. If I don't make a stand that, yeah, I treat everybody the same, but the fact is I'm not your traditional Caucasian sci-fi fantasy writer.”

EDLC: Being a Latino in this sci-fi space, has that impacted the way you write? And further, has it connected you to fans that otherwise you may not have heard from?

JY: Yeah, for sure. To answer both questions, I went to Instagram, maybe last week or two weeks ago, and I had received a message. I didn't recognize who it was from, but it was from a young man who's Latino, and I had gone to his school to talk seven years ago.

EDLC: Wow.

JY: I started writing eight years ago, got my first book picked up, and I had gone to that school about seven years ago to talk about my first book. And he still remembers that conversation. All these years later—I hadn't talked to him for seven years, but we were Instagram friends—he reached out to me and was like, "Yeah. I still remember you coming to my school, and seeing somebody who is of my same background up there talking to me, and I'll never forget it." And I just had to take a step back and I was like, "Is this guy trying to make me cry right now? Because he's doing a good job."

There's so many times, as a writer, I get so into the story, and so into the word count, like, "Okay, I need to hit this deadline, I need to make this happen. I need to write this short story," that sometimes I can forget that there's real people on the other side of the screen enjoying the story, and it's speaking to them.

To answer your other question, if I bring in these elements into my writing, I've gone back and forth. I wrote a series called Gateway to the Galaxy, and in that series, the cast was very culturally diverse. I was talking to one of my good friends, and he brought up a really good point. I don't know which is more powerful. Do you call out that you do have a very diverse cast of characters, or do you call out nothing, and then just play on that human part? Where I don't describe people's background or skin color, I just describe people by their character.

EDLC: Right I can see how, for instance, in a movie like Aliens—looking from that into your work, I can see it’s an influence—that motley crew of characters, we see them for who they are, but they're all colors. I think that speaks for itself, and the way that story develops throughout the film.

JY: That's a great analogy.

EDLC: I see that also in your works you cowrite a lot of series as well. Can you tell us a little bit about how that comes about? How do you decide who to work with, and how to proceed from there in terms of cocreating a world with another author?

JY: I have a very short list of things that I'm looking for in a coauthor. But I think for a lot of people, they might be difficult to hit, because I hold myself to the same standards. You have to be on time, you have to hit deadlines. No drama, because there's enough of that in the world. No, seriously, that's one of the ones. Like, "Hey, no drama, this isn’t working."

EDLC: No, I know. I know all about it.

JY: We have to have fun, for sure. I mean, it's everywhere, it's everywhere that you look. The more that we consume our time with drama, the more we lose track of what really matters in life.

EDLC: Totally understand that.

JY: So hard-working, drama-free, hit deadlines, and then the fourth one is that you have to have fun. Like if this doesn't work, if we're not having fun, if we're not making each other laugh, if we're not enjoying the creative process…?

EDLC: I don't know if you've gone to Audible and read some of your listener reviews, but that word seems to come up often when people talk about your work. It's always “fun.” And they complain about the cliffhangers. But, of course, you have to keep them coming back. So that's part of the work too.

JY: I always tease about how, over the years of doing this and getting thousands and thousands of views across audiobooks and print books and e-books, I've just been able to don myself in dragon scale armor when it comes to reviews. Because I know you get the good ones, of course, the good ones are always nice to read. But then you have the not-so-nice ones. Those have been good for me to thicken my skin, so I can have that dragon scale armor. 

But I also learn, because if a reader has something pessimistic to say and if multiple reviews and multiple people are bringing up the same point, then maybe there's some truth in it. And then there's a place for me to grow, Edwin. So I can take an honest look in my mirror like, "Hey, was this character not developed? Or did I cheat with this character by bringing them in at the last minute?" So I'm able to learn, too, but I'm only able to learn from that process if I can have that dragon scale armor and be okay with reading these one-star reviews.

EDLC: That makes sense. Well, speaking of audio, let's talk a little bit about your narrator choices. Audible listeners have been raving about Jay Snyder in Forsaken Mercenary, for instance. How was he chosen to be Daniel Hunt? And do you have a say in the narrators for your stories?

JY: Yeah. There's a lot of good things about working with Audible, but one of the many things I really appreciate is their willingness to work with me in choosing a narrator. 

EDLC: That's great.

JY: It's refreshing because I've worked with other audio publishers, who pretty much… they'll let you ask for whoever you want. But when it comes down to it, they're like, "No, no, no, we're just going to go with this person." And I've never felt that way with Audible. I've always felt that we've had conversations, and they've talked and they've reached out to people who I've asked for. And I took it very seriously in choosing. 

I think Jay is a great voice because he brings his own platform and his own followers to a work. I realized how important that is, to find a narrator in your genre who also has a following of their own, because they've been a professional for X amount of years and they have done a good job where they bring audio listeners who follow them.

EDLC: I'm relatively new to listening to Jay Snyder, but I was pretty amazed, and I giggled when he did a female voice in the first Forsaken Mercenary book. It didn't come across funny, but I giggled internally because, wow, he actually pulled it off.

JY: I'm glad you brought that up, because another really important thing for me is range.

EDLC: Right.

JY: When I listen to an audiobook, not so much nonfiction, but definitely fiction, I'm looking to be able to experience a performance. Somebody who is able to change their voice to have different inflections for different characters really brings the story to life. It's not like you're listening to a book anymore. At least for me, it's like I'm experiencing a performance.

EDLC: Right. This next question, Jonathan, is a little bit long, so bear with me. And it could get heavy, so feel free to divulge as much information as you want about this. One of the things in this genre that calls out to me are the covers. I love the cover art for your titles, because they tell me what to expect from the listen. 

At the same time, they also remind me of pocket westerns that I would pick up at the kiosks when I was growing up in the Dominican Republic. The popularity of westerns has waned through the years, especially in literature. Where do you think this genre's appeal with hyper-masculine imagery comes from? Because to me, it seems like these sci-fi titles have kind of replaced the old westerns that my dad used to read, and then I started to read. But when I was a kid, they became out of fashion. I no longer saw them and we segued into comics. Can you talk a little bit about that?

JY: I think that's really insightful. And I think you're right, because back in the day, when these westerns were written, I think a term used for them was dime novels.

EDLC: That's right.

JY: People, exactly like what you're saying, would pick them up, knowing exactly from the cover what they're getting themselves into. They were traditionally a shorter read; it wasn't going to be a super-thick book. 

I've adopted the same idea, writing pulp fiction kind of like what Edgar Rice Burroughs did with John Carter of Mars. Writing these shorter stories that are like 60-70,000 words for audio is like six hours’ worth of listening time. It's something that people can consume and it can leave them with a sense of hope and a smile on their face when they're done. They can look forward, when they pick up one of the Forsaken Mercenary books, to it being a six to eight-hour adventure that they can enjoy. And it's a lot of the same tropes as westerns. So you're totally right.

EDLC: Now, this segues into some of the things that excite you like anime and video games. So just FYI, I'm a very passive gamer, and I love JRPGs. Like Final Fantasy, Secret of Mana, Xenogears. I can see that strong video game influence in your work. Mass Effect, and I can see Halo, Gears of War, and Monster Hunter even. Can you walk us through how these games have influenced your work?

JY: Oh man, you're talking in my love language right now, Edwin.

EDLC: Somehow I figured.

JY: You follow all the stuff that I'm into too. Yeah, anime, video games. Of course, for sure. So with anime, one of my favorites of all time is Gurren Lagann. For those who might not be familiar with the storyline, it's about getting the lowest of the low, where it’s actually a society that lives underneath the earth. Watching [Simon’s] journey as he grows and learns, you can see in real time, even visually because he goes from this underground culture, to above ground, and then eventually space. So you get to see his evolution as a character, and you get to see him build his friends and his following.

I've really taken that to heart, because I thought they did a really good job with character development. That's what I try to do with my characters. We're going to take them from the low point, and then you're going to be able to experience with them and see them grow, and take this adventure right alongside him. Anime definitely has taught me that, specifically Gurren Lagann. And then as far as video games, I love Gears of War and Halo. My wife and I actually are always looking for good two-player co-op video games, that way we can play together.

EDLC: Wow.

JY: Yeah, it's been so much fun. We played through all the Gears of War games, except for the most current.

EDLC: That's perfect for you both, because that's a dual-action game with two people.

JY: It's so much fun. It's harder now, Edwin, I'm going to be honest with you, because we have a four-year-old and a six-week-old.

EDLC: Oh my gosh, congratulations.

JY: Thank you. It's difficult now, though, to carve out the time, because I can't have my four-year-old daughter walking in while I'm chain-sawing somebody's torso open. One day when she's older, we'll all play it together, but we still need to give her some time. Right now we're happy playing jump rope outside and coloring chalk with unicorn ponies, so I want to keep her there for a while.

EDLC: That's fantastic. Going back to audio, a good amount of titles of yours are available on Audible. Do you ever write with audio in mind in this genre?

JY: Oh my goodness. It's like you know me. For anybody listening to this, this is the first time that we're talking.

EDLC: It is. I've never spoken to Jonathan before, everyone.

JY: We already have a bunch in common. But yes, to answer your question. Yes, I just started doing that. I had a conversation with my agent now, because audio is a large portion of what I believe the future of storytelling will be. Even now, year over year, it's been expanding and growing, which is so cool to see. People who may not have traditionally been willing to sit down and open up a book or their e-reader are now willing to experience and consume these stories through audio. 

Early on, I told myself, "If, with each book I wrote, I could just get one percent better, where could I be in a decade?"

So yes, for sure. I had a conversation with my agent and the next series that I write will be focused on audio first. It’s also being released in e-book and paperback, but with an audio focus first. Forsaken Mercenary has 10 books out right now, and there's two left to go. I'm writing number 11, and then I'll head up number 12. This new series that I'm working on and developing right now will definitely be much-longer titles, with that audio consumer in mind first.

EDLC: Fantastic. Have there been any surprises in terms of writing with audio in mind?

JY: I have never given it much thought because I would say I'm still recently new to the audio market myself. I've only been ravenously consuming audios for about two years now. Before that, I always knew they existed, and I heard good things about them. But it wasn't till about early 2018 that I really got invested into them. 

Every 10,000 words is about an hour’s worth of audio. So in reading a 60,000-word novel, my readers are satisfied, but on the other side of that, the audio listeners who are only getting six hours’ worth of content weren't. They wanted more, they wanted 10 hours, they wanted 12 hours.

EDLC: They are ravenous, that's for sure.

JY: Yes, yes, and rightly so. I totally agree that when you get into a good story, you don't want it to end. When you're talking about a shorter audiobook, you want it to continue. So that was a big eye-opener for me, and I realized, "You know what? They're right." Because I get into audiobooks too, when I'm listening to something that's compelling, something that I enjoy, I don't want it to end. I want that thing to go on for 10 or 20 hours.

EDLC: You hinted at what's coming up from you, but can you tell us a little bit more about what you have in the pipeline for the future?

JY: Yes, without giving too much away, because I'm not sure how much I'm allowed to say.

EDLC: That's okay.

JY: Who are we kidding? I'm just going to tell you anyway. If I get in trouble, well, I'll just say I'm sorry. It's better to ask for forgiveness than permission, right?

EDLC: Right.

JY: All right. So for the next series that I want to write, I wanted to take everything that I've learned, and I've been writing for eight years now. Early on, I told myself, "If, with each book I wrote, I could just get one percent better, where could I be in a decade?" So, it's been eight years now, and with each book I'm still learning, I'm still getting better, and I'm still adding more tools to my toolkit to be able to use on the next book that I write. 

For the next series I want to incorporate [my knowledge] not just on the business side of writing more books, but on the story side, everything that I know that works. Different pieces from different series that really resonated with readers, and incorporate them all into this story.

So, what if? What if there was a galaxy at the center of our universe, where the war for light and darkness was waged on a daily basis? And in this galaxy, the effects of the war rippled out into the rest of the universe?

EDLC: That sounds amazing.

JY: What if, right? What if in this galaxy where this was happening, they needed warriors to fight this battle day in and day out? So what if our character was chosen to be one of these guardians?

EDLC: Wow, amazing.

JY: That's like one of the best parts of my job. I just kept asking myself, "What if? What if?" And there's never any wrong answer. What if he was a truck driver? What if he was just a normal guy? What if he had been like us? He's been struggling, he's been beaten up and spit out, he doesn't really know what he wants to do with his life, he has no purpose. But what if he was given an opportunity?

EDLC: I think that "what if" comes up often in sci-fi/fantasy. Most recently, I was listening again to the novelization of the first Alien film by Alan Dean Foster. And I think there's something that comes up in there where he says, "What if they did not stop by and listen to the signal that draws them to LV-426?" So I totally see the "what if?" brings so many more open questions and more exploration within your work.

JY: And in asking those questions, the story would never end. I don't even really feel like stories come to natural endings that might feel right to the reader, because there's always more questions. Like, "Well, what happened then? What happened to the side character you introduced? What happened to, at the beginning of the story, this faction that you mentioned? I want to know about them." The story goes on.

EDLC: Well, with that Jonathan, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. I really enjoyed this. I loved our chat about anime and sci-fi/fantasy. Please come back anytime you want to. And to everyone listening, please take a look at Jonathan Yanez's author page on Audible for a complete listing of his available works. Thanks for listening, everyone.

JY: Thank you so much.

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